On a crisp July winter’s morning, I had the pleasure of spending 45 minutes listening to the fabulous Yong Zhao (YZ). For all 2700 seconds, I sat on the edge of my chair enthralled by what he said, the synapses in my brain tingling with passion and purpose. A few weeks later, my mind is left buzzing; his words still ringing in my ears. Which is why this blog post exists; my way of re-gifting these key messages (and calls to action) from such an inspirational gentleman.
So, sitting from the comfort of my chair, in the warmth of my wee house, it feels fitting to tell the ‘Sherlock-Holmes’-style tale of, “The curse of the bell curve”. Cue: the typical murder mystery introductory style music….
Somewhere in the world today (the exact location is not important — because, in fact, it could be anywhere), there is an education system or two in which failing learners seems to be an uncomfortable yet consistent trend. Although the system aims to provide the best setup for learners everywhere, the ongoing ‘crimes’ of Learner Disengagement, high levels of Youth Unemployment, and Inequity, continue to cast a shadow over the outcome that the system itself strives for. So, what is happening in this structure that is having such a worrying impact on the learners of today?
Now, being aware of this, the Education Detective Agency (The EDA) has cross-examined and kept a close eye on the three main suspects of this sorry tale: Assessment, Curriculum, and Pedagogy. They have put each one under the spotlight, examined and provided tweaks here and there (the system’s equivalent of a nip and tuck) in hope of changing the ending. The problem is that these tinkerings have, in reality, done little to change the outcome for all learners. Leaving the EDA puzzled and confused about what to try next, enter left of stage Education’s version of Sherlock Holmes (in this instance, Yong Zhao)…
Yong Zhao closely examines the evidence before him, looks for the reasons beyond what are there purely in black marks across pages and pages. After months, days, and hours, and viewing education system after education system, Mr Zhao finds the link between the cause and effect and jumps up (in a “I’ve-got-it-my-dear-Watson”-style moment) to suggest that the problem is not that a poor education is being delivered, but that it is the wrong education. He proceeds to talk about how tweaking is not enough, and that a complete system transformation needs to occur to make a real and authentic difference, meaning that those crimes mentioned earlier no longer occur. Surrounded by a room full of empty faces, not sure how to receive this insight, Zhao knows that he is going to have to draw the web of evidence out to really convince his peers.
Zhao, takes a pen and beings to draw a curve on a board. In actual fact it is a bell curve, something that all in his company are aware of. He proceeds to add some stick figures on different parts of the bell curve:
He then goes on to explain that the problem with the bell curve is that, in order for it to exist, there must always be someone at the bottom, a large group at the top, and a few stragglers leading the way. This leads us to fitting our learners into categories (failing, coping, and sailing). If we continue to view learners in this way, then we are never going to move beyond this — 85% at or above … someone has to fall into the 15% — this means we are always failing these learners.
The room begins to grow in noise and activity as those in the EDA start muttering in agreement and understanding with what had been presented to them. The problem has been identified and reason unleashed, but the questions bubble up — Is this really what we want for our learners? Is this how we want to view our society as a whole? How can we break this curse?
The good thing to mention here, is that the story is yet to end, and, therefore, the final chapter can still be written! And, here are the things that need to be considered in order to do so. YZ knows that the curse will not be easily broken, and what it does require is a united front in which all in the system flip it on its head. To begin this process, the first thing that needs to happen is that the system has to fit the learner (not the other way round) — being personalised and learner driven. This means, not only acknowledging, but celebrating, individual differences and moving away from prescribed outcomes to fit-for-purpose ones that are responsive to the individual. Take Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, as an example. Under the prescribed outcome, he didn’t meet the criteria but all it took was a wee bit of belief from Santa, a foggy night, and a chance to shine for the little fellow to finally see what it was that made him special. His purpose was established.
So, this is where the tale ends (for now anyway) with a call to action to all to help write the last chapter and make a difference to those we work for — our learners. Start with something small and watch the ripple effect occur. Ask yourself, ‘What am I doing to help my learners to find their strength, their point of difference, and their motivation? And, how can I utilise this to help them to succeed?’
For more information, why not delve into Yong Zhao’s book Counting What Counts: Reframing Education Outcomes.
Zhao, Y. (2016). Counting What Counts: Reframing Education Outcomes Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Sherlock Holmes image retrieved from: https://pixabay.com/en/sherlock-holmes-detective-147255/ under CC0 with adaptions.
Santa and Rudolph image retrieved from: https://pixabay.com/en/santa-claus-reindeer-573826/ under CC0.